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News / February 16, 2009

Northern Ireland dentists threatened over bleach

by Guy Hiscott

Dentists in Northern Ireland are being threatened with prosecution for performing a technique used for decades to whiten patients’ teeth.

An MP has warned that some practitioners have received written warnings from trading standards officers for carrying out dental bleaching using strong concentrations of hydrogen peroxide.

Under European law, selling tooth-bleaching materials containing more than 0.1% hydrogen peroxide is illegal – whether it is sold over the counter or provided by a dentist.

The General Dental Council (GDC) and the Government are united in wanting this restriction, contained in the European cosmetics directive, to be amended to exclude their use by dentists, who maintain that the weaker treatment allowed under the directive is ineffective.

However, regulators and ministers are currently powerless to protect practitioners from a situation that MP Paul Beresford told Parliament had been ‘confusing dentists and trading standards officers throughout the UK for a considerable number of years’.

The MP, a practising dentist, said: ‘There are a few trading standards officers who continue to threaten to prosecute dentists using more than the 0.1% concentration. I was approached in the last few weeks after dentists in Northern Ireland received quite aggressive letters threatening prosecution.’

Sir Paul demanded action to sort out ‘this nonsense’ in the face of the evidence of ‘many decades of successful and safe bleaching in the hands of dental professionals’.

‘Such techniques are commonly used in the rest of the world – it is the EU that has got itself bureaucratically out of step,’ he added.

The MP said trading standards officers would be best advised to back-off dentists using stronger bleaching treatments and focus instead on the number of ‘non-dental professionals, in beautician salons in particular’, who were risking people’s health by bleaching their teeth with chlorine dioxide.

He called on the government to suggest to trading standards departments that ‘a more enlightened approach’ should be adopted towards dentists using bleaching materials in the way they were intended.

Consumer affairs minister Gareth Thomas, responding to the Commons debate, said he hoped the issue would be resolved shortly when a European working group on cosmetics meet to discuss the directive. He insisted that, to his knowledge, no dentists had been prosecuted in the UK for using bleach on a patient’s teeth.

But, admitting he could not offer dentists complete reassurance, he warned: ‘Trading standards departments are required to consider action if they become aware of products being supplied, whether by dental practitioners or over the counter, that contain more than 0.1% hydrogen peroxide.’

He added: ‘Since 2001, the UK has been leading the way in seeking an amendment to the cosmetics directive to allow a greater percentage of hydrogen peroxide so that the bleaching effect will actually work and teeth will be whitened. The process has proved to be far from easy to conclude, and has so far not resulted in an amending directive that has received a positive vote from the member states.’

However, he said, it was hoped that such an amending directive would be presented at a meeting of the cosmetics expert working group at the earliest opportunity. It would allow tooth-whitening products containing up to 6% hydrogen peroxide to be available to consumers, after assessment and first application by a dental practitioner.

Mr Thomas said: ‘My officials and the chief dental officer’s office at the Department of Health will continue to apply pressure on the Commission to bring the situation to a speedy conclusion. I hope that we will get a positive outcome shortly.’